John Walsh

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The Independent Online
In her first novel, With One Lousy Free Packet of Seeds, published in 1994, Lynne Truss imagined a down-at-heel horticultural magazine called Come Into the Garden, staffed by green-fingered dreamers, gumbooted losers and sub-editors in dirndl skirts. One of the magazine's star features is the weekly "Me and My Shed" slot, in which a famous person is questioned about their relationship with the hut-like structure at the end of their garden. ("In certain professional quarters, people still raved about his 'Me and My Shed: David Essex'; it was said that, for anyone interested in the art of celebrity outhouse interviewing, it had represented the absolute 'last word'.") Ms Truss's intention is, I fear, satirical; but she has, accidentally, stumbled on a subject of vast importance - a snapshot of the Zeitgeist.

Only a week ago, I was reading a story in the tabloids about an English couple whose daughter had died in a riding accident, and who had tried to assuage their grief by designing and building a ranch-style outhouse in her memory. Now we get A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder, published next week, in which a journalist and writer called Michael Pollan describes how he built a timber shack in the woods behind his home in Connecticut. Big deal, I can hear you yawning, Man Writes DIY Book, fascinating... But this is different. At the outset of his labours, Pollan could not tell a Rawlplug from a rattlesnake. His approach is intellectual to a degree: once he's decided to knock up a shed by himself, Pollan starts wondering why and goes into cultural overdrive: he writes about "Thoreauvian fantasies of self-sufficiency", quotes from Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space about the accommodation of daydreams, cites Virginia Woolf and Lewis Mumford, Derrida and Rousseau, and bangs on about "the full significance of territory and shelter, the metaphysics of inside and out" - and that's before he has found out the right way to bang in a nail. It's a brilliant performance, doing for the humble outhouse what Richard Klein did for nicotine in Cigarettes are Sublime. And as far as I'm concerned, it's very timely. Because I lately acquired a shed myself, and have been too shy to tell the world of its wondrous qualities until now. Mr Pollan has, in one 300-page defence, legitimised shedophilia.

Mine comes from a Worcester-based outfit called Courtyard Designs. The people who run it are rather sweetly determined that the word "shed" is too declasse to be used in its brochures or on its salesmen's lips. Thus you have a choice of "pavilions", "summerhouses", "classic outbuildings" and "garden offices". No huts. No shacks. No lean-tos. No potting sh... But you get the picture. My, ahem, garden office looks like this (see below) only with a spectacular camouflage of lilac, ash and poplar leaves. It's got a little porch, on which you sit reading the papers on sunny mornings. There is, alas, not enough room to erect a swing or rocking chair for the full Louisiana-geriatric effect, but it's a thought. Inside there are recessed spotlights, three telephone lines, umpteen power points to take the computer, the fax, the ghetto-blaster, the mini-bar (four bottles of Chardonnay) and the Vax machine. Along the 15-foot back wall there are eight shelves of paperbacks (not included in the price). The heater turns the air into Tropical Swamp in minutes. The carpet is mid- Aegean blue with occasional, characterful striations of mud. The ficus plant in the corner...

When the thing is first built, you experience a worry that you're, in effect, packing yourself off, every evening, to a well-upholstered dog kennel. But as you sit reflectively at midnight, reading in a dreamy spiral of Marlboro Lights and middle-period Van Morrison, you look through the dark at the lit windows of home and experience for a second what I expect Neil Armstrong felt on looking back at Planet Earth, and you think no more about incarceration. On sunny afternoons, with the thrush whistling what sounds like Sibelius in the laburnum, the bushes rustling like cowpokes, the children sitting on the desk talking about holidays and the distant mutter of Irish builders drifting in through your open windows, it all gets very Keatsian. God knows what Mr Pollan (or Thoreau) would make of the bosky dell that is now my soul's retreat; but you don't need metaphors in Paradise. You just need a device for getting wasps out of the inkjet printer.

You hear a lot about the dubious additives in food these days. You hear awful warnings about the sudden rise in cannibalism across the rougher bits of Africa. Spurred on by David Blunkett, you worry about the nutritional value of the things your children are eating. But nothing in your wildest dreams of monosodium glutamate prepares you for what they seem to put into German chocolate. I discovered this latest abomination, from the Ritter Sport range, in my local Tesco the other day. And I include it here (below), calmly and without comment, for your inspection. "Extra" indeed...

A friend of mine decided, last week, to lobby members of Parliament on the subject of adoption. She wrote a letter to send to all 660-odd MPs, and left it to her secretary to address the envelopes. Later in the day, her secretary - a devout Irish Catholic woman - came to her with a heartfelt plea. "Please," she said, "don't make me write to the Sinn Fein lot. Me husband would never forgive me."

Well, of course, my friend agreed that she could make an exception when it came to canvassing the Republican tendency. It does seem a little irrelevant, she said, asking them for their views about the legal niceties of adoption. But then again, she said (and I agreed with mounting enthusiasm), why not? Wouldn't it be interesting to see if a party wholly devoted to sectarian politics had a policy about more everyday things? How fascinating it would be to attend a Sinn Fein rally and yell, during a lull in the speeches, "Mister Adams - where exactly do you stand on creche facilities?" Now that Martin McGuinness's 21-year-old daughter, Grainne (top picture), has been considering a career in fashion modelling, it might be the time to ask the MP for mid-Ulster if he holds strong views on the ride-up-your- leg qualities of Thai silk and chiffon.

This isn't a plea for irrelevance, more a recognition that people's lives are more multifarious than their public image makes them seem. Every interviewer knows that the best way to pull up a subject who has settled too determinedly into a familiar monologue is to ask where they got the hat/the watch/the tan/the scar. The music magazine Q used regularly to invite demented, lino-chewing rock stars to nominate "the prince of cheeses". And it was Tony Benn, no less, who advised me years ago that when meeting people from an arena of success, you should always talk to them about something quite unconnected with it. He always did, apparently. Okay, I said, say you've just met, ooh, General Schwarzkopf. What do you say to him? "I should ask him," said Benn, "where he gets his collars made."

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